Music and controversy – not necessarily good bedfellows

(March 11, 2012)

Music and controversy – not necessarily good bedfellows but they are often partners in the same sentence. Whether the discussion focuses on style, definition, acceptance or rejection it takes but a moment for music to generate high feelings. And these feelings are not confined to any one genre. The ongoing discussions about folk and what precisely defines it shows no sign of diminishing, indeed after a couple of pints it’s the standard default topic in a plethora of pubs and clubs. There’s everything from considered opinion to rabid fanaticism, sometimes with the actual music stuck somewhere in between.

I’ve written about the debate on previous occasions but there’s always room for another paragraph or ten around that particular chestnut. Colin Holt is a man with a considerable music pedigree ranging from prog rock through jazz rock to folk and acoustic over a span of some 30 years. Recently he asked the perennial question – “What is folk music?” Now there’s a conversation starter. Or perhaps, depending on the ferocity of your views, it’s a discussion stopper. He continued: “Like many, I suspect, I’ve never quite understood what ‘folk music’ means. In fact, I spent some years fearing that I was missing something.” I suspect that he may not be alone.

It’s always about the writing

Many artists, along with Colin, maintain that it’s “... always about the writing.” Collectively and individually, artists also put weight behind the opinion that a good song will last, whatever debatable genre claims its birthright or however people decide to categorise or classify it after its birth. That much is true of music in general and it’s certainly true of folk. It’s also true that many folk artists I know believe strongly in the integrity of their work and write because the subject moves them - rather than ‘cuffing off’ another song to appease some corporate music machine.

In presenting his views on the validity of classifying folk Colin also sought to broaden the issue by asking a left-of-centre version of a similar question. “What is classical music? You only have to listen to Classic FM for 20 minutes to realise how confusing the whole concept is. Can Carl Jenkins really be considered a writer of classical music? Well apparently so. Doesn’t he just write music?”
Well indeed he does. And that’s just the issue with regimented classification. It can so easily get you stuck in a proverbial rut. Folk, like most music is open to evolution and species can develop, modify and expand yet still remain bound to the same root – a touch Darwinian but there it is. Folk by the nature of one common definition – music about people, for people – is perfectly placed to undergo such development. Perhaps some folk aficionados consider traditional folk is like the crocodile. Once you’ve reached your pinnacle of evolution (even if it took several thousand years) why bother to move any further? How much better to allow cross fertilisation and coexistence to thrive - it does work you know, for without it where would folk rock hang its hat? So if you want to express yourself through folk, whatever you define that mode of expression to be – tradition or contemporary - then do it’.

Writing without evolution

That statement opens the door to a whole raft of folk styles relishing a steady (and sometimes grudging) acceptance. Folk rock passed its test years ago and has become in many ways ‘established’ folk, even though some traditional purist decry it as ‘contaminated’ folk. Now in addition to pastoral folk, psych folk and nu folk, which in many eyes still wear their ‘L’ plates, we have the rising exponents of jazz folk, ska folk and brass folk. Whoever said we had parsimony of definitions?

Having opened a rich vein, Colin continued: “It seems to me that some artists write something or perform an interpretation of something else, which allows them passage into the ‘folk circle’.  Music, ‘which has roots in the traditional style’ is a statement I’ve heard on many occasions as an explanation for folk music. However, no one, as yet, has been able to explain to me what ‘writing in the traditional style’ actually means.”

It could be that writing in the tradition means writing ‘without evolution’ – moving the same old themes up and down the same old tracks in the same old way. And if that keeps those old songs alive then what’s wrong with that? Nothing at all, as long as not subscribing to preservation at the expense of development does not bring the trad police banging on your door at 03:00 in the morning. Conversely, it could mean working with the roots and yet allowing their nutrients to enter the new buds and branches as you grow them. The ‘tradition’ could be what Cecil Sharp and a dozen other potentates of folk have already defined – and without them, it is argued, much of our traditional heritage would have vanished a long time ago. That may be true - then again Sharp and many other ‘collectors’ have endured (and continue to) a fair amount of criticism for ‘inventing the tradition’ rather than cataloguing the tradition. That also has the ring of truth in many quarters. Debate this long enough and you will verge on insanity for like the Gordian knot one swift cut could be the only solution.

The road to everyone’s sanity is ‘acceptance’ for without it the definitions become enforced for their own sake. And that enforcement dictates proscription. In that case deciding whether it is ‘the tradition’ or not and decrying any other styles because they don’t fit a proscribed definition sounds like dogma – and it’s also slightly weird.

New directions for exploration

The key for me is always ‘broad acceptance without proscription’. I may not like some music that its owners describe as folk, mainstream, traditional or fringe, but does that give me the right to call it not-folk? Well, actually yes it does by my own (admittedly fairly broad and lax) definitions but does that in turn mean that their definition is wrong – I think not. It’s just different. And because it’s different it may hold new directions worth exploring. Which naturally brings us back to my earlier point about the benefits of cross fertilisation and coexistence.
After opening with a question let’s close (this particular chapter in a long ongoing story) with a question. “In the end, does it really matter?” In the cosmic scheme of things it matters not one jot – in the spirit of healthy debate, it matters about as much as you want it to. Along with many others, I agree with the view that that “... music is what it is, and it either does it for you, or it doesn’t. Songs are what they are. They move you or they don’t. There are no rules and nothing is right or wrong.”

What matters is music that moves some part of the listener. Music that moves the heart or the soul, even music that inspires action or reflection – whatever the impetus, it’s anything other than bland non-moving music. And if that sounds like the commercially produced musical pap that pours out unceasingly of every broadcast device on the planet then that’s one point on which we all agree. As Colin says: “I’m moved in a similar way, and just as much, by Chris Wood singing ‘Summerfield Avenue’, as I am by the Kinks singing ‘Waterloo Sunset’, or by Hatfield and the North singing ‘It Didn’t Matter Anyway’. Yes, I can understand that point.

Live long and prosper

The tradition, whatever it means to you, is as valid as contemporary. Good music is undoubtedly good music and like the mountains it endures. Perhaps that’s the answer we all seek when the folk tradition debate picks up next time. Does it endure? Has it endured – sometimes for hundreds of years? Then like ‘folk’ and like ‘classical’ it has passed the test of time and lasts. Although there are an increasing number of views that consider some ‘pop’ offerings have now done just that. These long-lived pop songs have somehow become more ‘valid’ as music. . And if you take a few seconds to consider that point then it’s undeniably true. Listening to the outpouring of music from The Monkees that followed the untimely death of David Jones is evidence enough. For example, more than one news reporter referred to songs such as ‘Daydream Believer’ and ‘Last Train to Clarkesville’ as ‘classics’

New generations rise and whether or not they do nothing more than add their own inflection to the accent or go on to develop the species, they contribute to the evolution that we are all subject to. The truth is once written good songs stay the duration. Wasn’t it Joni Mitchell that said: “Songs are like tattoos.” And if they are then two things are certain. One is good songs do endure - there’s music written today that will become ‘the tradition’ in three hundred or so years. Just wait and see, and remember I told you. (And the second truth – tattoos do hurt even if it’s only a little bit).

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